Missing Bill Bass

April 24, 2014

“What? Too many blacks in Annapolis High School?” That was the sharp comment I received in one of my first meetings with Bill Bass. I was being introduced as the new fellow in our Men’s Bible Study. Asked where my kids were going to school, I answered Annapolis Area Christian School. I was completely unprepared for such a kick in the solar plexus. In a Bible Study? Was this freshman hazing?

No, I was quickly assured. That was Bill’s style. He was then in his early 80s. Brilliant, fearless and blunt, he said what he thought and did not care who liked it. I was so taken aback I never had the chance, or the quickness of mind, to give a proper answer. I might have retorted: “Well, Bill, since my children attended our Lutheran elementary school, where 85% of the students are black, I guess I just got out of the habit of counting by race.” Or, I might have added that one of the few black students in my son’s class at AACS had saved his life.

Bill was a proud Texas liberal. He had been a top Navy and civilian aide to the legendary Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover. “The Admiral,” as Bill always referred to him, was the Father of the Nuclear Navy. And Bill was his right hand man for decades. Strong and brave men would get a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs when they received a pink telephone message: “Call Bill Bass.” And these were submariners.

Over the years in that Bible Study, it became clear that Bill Bass could take it as well as dish it out. He regaled us with many a story of “the Admiral.” When Bill Bass turned fifty, the Admiral took note. No touchy feely session, though. “So, Bass. You’re now fifty years old. I guess this is as good as you’re gonna get.” Another time, the Admiral admonished Bill. “Bass, you don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself. You could learn from other people’s mistakes, you know.” This was clearly before they invented self-esteem.

I recall a Saturday session of our group in 2005. Bill Bass was describing how he served on the great WWII battleship USS Missouri when she was grounded in Chesapeake Bay in 1950. Bill was a junior engineering officer at the time of that most embarrassing incident. Missouri’s Harry Truman was sitting in the White House then. And Harry’s daughter Margaret had christened this mighty warship. To run aground in home waters was a major blunder for the ship’s skipper and her crew. Nonetheless, Bill related every ingenious maneuver required to free the grounded battlewagon. In minute detail, for twenty-seven minutes, he kept us spellbound with an exact rendering of kedging, and of the pumping action that sloshed bilge water back and forth from port to starboard to rock the great ship free.

When he finished, we all applauded his total recall. And then we used his story as a text for not growing weary in doing good. (Our Bible Study gets a bit distracted at times.)

I generally try to keep my work week out of the Bible Study. Because Family Research Council believes that everyone deserves a birth day, that brides should marry grooms, and that this is one Nation under God, some people find us controversial. But there was one Saturday when I was asked to report on my travels on the FRC/Heritage Foundation Values Bus. I spoke of our defense of marriage. I quoted Dr. Patrick Fagan’s famous study of child poverty. Pat and his colleagues at Heritage Foundation, where he worked before coming to FRC, virtually married by computer modeling the parents of the four million American children living in poverty. Pat and his colleagues found that if those parents were married, only 750,000 of those unfortunate kids would still be living in poverty.

I thought that was pretty persuasive evidence of the power of marriage to lift young lives out of poverty. Most of my Bible Study friends agreed. Not Bill Bass. He piped up: If their parents had access to free and legal abortion, none of them would be living in poverty. I confess I was struck dumb. I had not expected such a Herodian viewpoint in our Christian Bible Study.

Bill Bass was as liberal in his theology as in his politics. He was forever saying we cannot take the Gospels literally. After all, they were written by fallible men some fifty or sixty years after the events they purport to chronicle.

Only years later did this rejoinder occur to me: Bill Bass -- you related the entire story of the grounding of the USS Missouri fifty-five years after the event. You missed no significant detail. And “Big Mo” never ascended from that sand bar into Heaven!

I admit I was shocked by Bill’s recent death, just short of his ninetieth birthday. He seemed so alive, so strong-willed. When we visited him in the hospital, we asked him how the food was. “Lousy,” he roared! And then he proceeded to tick off every item he’d ordered for breakfast and how they gave him nothing he wanted.

Whenever he uttered some truly outrageous comment, I would remind myself of his service to God and country. For fifty years, we were all kept safe by our nuclear submarine force. Because of Admiral Rickover’s driving genius, and Bill Bass’s indispensable help, the rulers of an Evil Empire always knew they could not strike us with nuclear weapons without being wiped out themselves. They were deterred. Rickover and Bass were our shield and buckler.

In the end, the only thing Bill Bass and I agreed about was Jesus. That is enough. And I do miss Bill.